Garmin eTrex 20 overview

by Brad Nelson   3/2/14

I gave this little device (and it is indeed a little device at 1.3 x 4 x 2.1 inches and 5 ounces) a real workout last summer. Normally when you think “blogger” you think slightly overweight and out-of-shape. Well, I do carry about 25 lbs. more than I need to. But I’m not out of shape…relatively speaking.

And the eTrex 20 has made exercise (mainly hiking and biking in the woods) fun. And the motto here at StubbornThings is there ain’t nothin’ you can do that hi-tech can’t improve.

This was my first GPS device (other than the POS GPS that came inside my Android tablet computer). Those who have them in their cars surely know their utility. The Garman eTrex 20 is just a portable version, made lighter, more robust, and waterproof (you can drop this thing in the water, no problem).

This review is more of a round-up than a full-fledged tutorial or exposition of the Garmin eTrex 20’s many features. You can find a pdf manual online if you really want to dig into the individual features.

Etrex20In spite of its small size, it’s a very capable device. This isn’t a stripped-down version, although the eTrex 30 has a few extra features, but nothing that I thought was worth paying extra for at the time. I had originally bought my eTrex as a refurbished unit at, so I did much better than retail anyway. But the price has come down since then and you can pick them up for as little as $165.00 new at Amazon.

First off, what this little thing doesn’t do is replace a good pedometer or bicycle odometer. If you like keeping track of how far you have walked or biked, the eTrex gives, at best, a rough estimate within about 10%. It’s not that the device itself doesn’t accurately measure your position. It can amazingly tell you where you are within as little as 12 feet (depending upon how many satellites the unit has locked in at any given time). But if you’re walking through fairly dense trees, it will tend lose track of its position momentarily and these little time distance gaps add up…in terms of trying to keep track of your exact distance traveled.

The eTrex 20 will otherwise, as I said, always accurately show you where you are. And it’s true that a pedometer is also a bit of an approximation in terms of distance traveled. But at least it can be consistently approximate, unlike a GPS. And I like to know distances just for the sake of doing so. It’s another little point of interest on the trail, and perhaps another motivating factor that can have you traveling just a bit further than you would have.

Nor is the eTrex 20 a practical alternative for a dedicated car GPS unit. Although you can stuff any and all maps into this thing (the whole Garmin family is compatible in this regard), the screen is too small and there are no audible navigating directions spoken from the device — a must for an auto GPS.

Battery life is good (always bring spares) and as is the usual disclaimer, a GPS is not a complete substitute for a good map and a compass, although these things are getting so reliable, I wonder if that is still true. But I bought this unit more as an introduction to GPS navigating. I don’t mean to cross the Olympics using it. I’m purely a hacker, an enthusiastic amateur, and not the reincarnation of Daniel Boone.

What’s great about this GPS (or, really, any modern hand-held GPS) is the breadcrumb trail it leaves. Wherever you go, it leaves a line superimposed on a map showing exactly where you’ve been. So wherever you are, you can always turn around and follow this line back. With one of these GPS things, you would have to work pretty hard to get lost. It’s not impossible (the unit could die, you could lose it, or run of out batteries). But it would be fairly hard to do. This would be as true deep in the Olympic Mountains as in a large city. This aspect of it gives you some freedom and confidence to just go exploring.

And if you load it with the right maps (and there are good ones that are free), you can navigate with an eagle’s eye wherever you are. I use the terrific and ever-expanding Northwest Trails map in conjunction — as an overlay, that is — with the Northwest Topo Map. One of the revelations in finding this Northwest Trails map was finding out about so many trails (and close-by ones as well) that I never knew about.

The actual software of the Garmin line of GPS devices is superb. There are other brands out there, and I’ll say nothing against them, but you couldn’t go wrong from a sheer ease-of-use standpoint. The only major user interface fault on the eTrex line is there is no lock for the little “joystick” nob that you can see at the top-right of the unit. So if you stick this in your pocket, it’s very easy to inadvertently be clicking on stuff, and perhaps to a bad effect. This danger can be minimized by simply moving to a screen where any “clicking” will have little or no effect (such as just going to the compass screen before you put it in your pocket).

The general “gist” of the device does take some getting use to. You need to become familiar with setting waypoints and stuff like that. And there is companion software (free, for Mac or PC) — Garmin’s Basecamp — that you need to learn to use in order to, at the very least, load maps onto the device. But it’s really not all that complicated. And, truthfully, I’ve only scratched the surface of the features of this external software. But it does allow you to pre-plan routes, for instance, that you can then follow on the GPS.

The eTrex 20 does fun little things as well such as “Geocaching” which is like a treasure hunt. Kids will love this aspect of it.

As much as I love my eTrex 20 and have successfully put it through its paces, I consider this an entry-level device. Again, it’s not because of a lack of features or robustness. This is the beauty of the eTrex. You can learn all the basics, and more, and then move up to a more expensive device and not have to relearn everything. They all pretty much run the same great software.

But the problem with the eTrex 20 is that the screen is too small. This may be somewhat of a subjective thing. One can certainly make use of it as-is. But I think most people understand in terms of their computer or even their phone screens that bigger is better. Bigger just makes things easier. And I often find myself having difficulty getting the lay of the land with the small screen of the eTrex 20 (which is the same size as the 30 as well) because you can see so little of it at one time.

I may or may not upgrade to a unit with a larger screen. But if I do, it will certainly be a Garmin. And it’s a nice product in that you’re not bled to death with a plethora of needed add-ons and accessories just to get basic functionality. Yes, you can get a case if you wish, but that’s about all you need. This is an outstanding product. And given the internal micro SD card (which will hold up to 8 gigabytes…something that you do need to add-on if  you wish), internal expansion is practically unlimited (for maps, waypoints, and routes). You’ll lose this thing before it ever wears out.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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5 Responses to Garmin eTrex 20 overview

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    One thing I will say about the screen, which is indeed small (and, frankly, the screen of the models costing $500 or more are hardly gargantuan), is that it is clear and bright. Unlike, say, my Acer A500 tablet computer (which I love), it does not wash out to complete illegibility in the sunlight. In fact, the light helps it. It’s in the dark areas that you need the backlight (which you can set to various levels, as needed).

  2. Laurie says:

    I just got my etrex20x and it is my first GPS. Thank-you for the good information. But I am still trying to figure out how to use it as an odometer. Even if it isn’t perfectly accurate, I would like to get an approximation of my distance traveled. I thought the distance would come up on the “Trip Computer” but it does not. Any suggestions?

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Hi, Laurie. Congrats on you eTrex 20. I think you’ll love it.

      On my eTrex 20 there is a screen that has a half-sun at the top and then below it is divided into eight data fields. You can customize the six bottom data fields. I don’t remember if the Odometer shows up by default or not.

      You should be able to get to this screen by just hitting the “back” button (at the very top right of the unit) several times. At the top right of this screen is a Trip Odometer which can be reset at will and I believe appears on this screen by default. There’s also an overall Odometer which keeps a running total of your distance even when you’ve reset the Trip Odometer.

      To change the data fields that are shown on this screen, press the “Menu” button (the bottom-most button on the Left) and up will pop up a menu that includes “Change Data Fields” as a choice. Choose that and then you’ll be returned to that main screen where you can use the cursor to highlight which data field you wish to change. Click the cursor and up will come numerous choices, including an Odometer.

      I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any questions. Unless your version is different, the Trip Odometer should appear in the upper right of that screen by default.

  3. lecuré says:

    i want to reset the trip odometer but in only see the total odometer How i have to do to reach the trip odometer on ETREX 20X

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      lecuré, thanks for the good question. I think I know what you want to do. If not, ask again:

      To reset the trip odometer (and other mileage data):

      1) Go to the screen that displays these trip numbers. (Hit the top right “back” button on the eTrex until you come to this screen that has multiple trip data on it.)

      2) Press the lower button on the left side of the eTrex 20

      3) Use the joystick/nipple/knob thingie to choose “Reset” from the pop-up menu , although “Reset” should come up as the default.

      4) Choose “Reset Trip Data, Timers, etc.”

      5) The next screen will give you a chance to back out in case this isn’t what you want to do. We want to do it so choose “Yes.”

      Note that I had some problems with the reset “sticking” before I updated the firmware of the eTrex 20 to the latest. I’m running software version 4.20. Gauging from this download page, the latest version is 4.50. I’m going to be of the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality on this one. But if you have software older than 4.20, I would definitely update your device. Go to the “About” icon under the “Setup” icon. You’ll see the version number at the top of this screen.

      The above will keep your overall odometer intact. (Mine shows 9021 miles, most of which is from forgetting to turn off the device when I get back in the car. But I have put on a lot of miels with this thing.) And if you want to reset the trip data as well as clear the current track, there is an option in that one “Reset” menu to do that instead.

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